Much like coffee, there are many factors that contribute to making superior chocolate. The type of cocoa bean, the origin and environment where the beans grow and how the bean is processed all determine how the gourmet chocolate tastes.
Cacao has been cultivated for thousands of years in Mexico, Central and South America. The Aztecs and Maya used cacao beans along with chilies, herbs and cornmeal to make a bitter drink that was believed to enhance virility. Cacao beans were introduced to the Spanish explorer, Cortés, who brought them back to Europe where sugar was added to offset the bitter flavor. This was the beginning of a long love affair with one of the most popular delicacies in the world.
There are three types of cacao beans. Criollo beans grow in milder climates and in
rich soils. They are considered the finest, producing the most aromatic, least acidic
beans. Forastero beans make up 90% of the world’s crop. They offer higher yield
but tend to have earthy, relatively simple flavors with moderate acidity.
The Trinitario bean is a hybrid that combines the superior taste of the Criollo bean with the higher yield of the Forastero variety. Café Britt only uses select cocoa beans from the two quality varieties, Criollo and Trinitario.
Even if you use the best beans, you must still carefully process the cacao to ensure a final product of good quality.
By the time you nibble a delicious chocolate, it has been through many thorough steps:
Cocoa trees produce their first pods in four to five years, and then about every six months. As they mature, the pods turn from green or red to orange or yellow. A mature pod can weigh about one kilo (2.2 pounds) and contain as many as 45 beans – the “seeds” of the tree. Mature pods are picked by hand and cut open with a machete. The beans are removed from a purplish pulp inside by hand.
Only beans destined for finer chocolate undergo fermentation. The beans are stacked in large, wood boxes, covered with banana leaves and left to ferment for about five days. During fermentation, yeasts and bacteria are added to break down the beans’ natural sugars into lactic and acetic acids. Compounds and enzymes within the beans work together to form the beginnings of gourmet chocolate flavor. Café Britt uses only fermented beans to produce our quality chocolates.
After fermentation, the beans are removed from the box and spread in the sun to dry. Sun drying takes about a week, which is absolutely critical for a flavorful gourmet chocolate. The beans are occasionally raked to expose all moist surfaces and ensure even drying. Sometimes, fire is used for drying beans, but this produces a bitter, smoky flavor. As with our coffees, Café Britt chocolate is made only from sun-dried beans.
Next, the beans are cleaned and subject to a brief, intense burst of hot air to separate the shell from the “nib” or the inner part of the bean used for making chocolate. The outer shell is often used as animal feed.
The winnowed nibs are roasted at temperatures higher than 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit). Roasting brings out the rich flavor and characteristic color of chocolate. At Café Britt, we roast at the lower end of the heat spectrum to bring out the flavor but not rid the beans of their natural, varietal flavors.
We’re almost finished! The roasted nibs are ground to produce a rich cocoa mass or “liquor” that is about the consistency of cream. Despite its name, cocoa liquor contains no alcohol. This mass contains the cocoa particles suspended in about a 55-percent mixture of fat or “cocoa butter.” At this point, the cocoa liquor is used for different things. It can be further processed to produce cocoa powder, hot cocoa and cocoa butter or it may be used to make into chocolate bars.
A cacao bean is comprised of both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Varying amounts of each of these along with the addition of milk solids and other additives determine the make up of dark, milk or white chocolate.
Dark Chocolate has a high percentage of cocoa solids and very little or no milk. Dark chocolate is offered in unsweetened or semi-sweet versions for baking while the sweeter options are usually consumed. Because the health benefits of chocolate exist in the cocoa solids, the darker the chocolate, the better it is for you. At Café Britt we use 62% semi-sweet dark chocolate to make our irresistible chocolate creations.
Milk chocolate is milder and sweeter than dark chocolate. Milk solids added during chocolate processing making it lighter in color and reducing the intensity of the chocolate taste.
White chocolate contains no cocoa solids but is made only of cocoa butter. Sugar, milk, vanilla and an emulsifier are added to the cocoa butter. Quality white chocolates have a higher percentage of cocoa butter whereas poor quality chocolates use all fillers. White chocolate is very creamy as it is higher in fat. Due to the lack of cocoa solids, white chocolate is caffeine free.
If the alluring flavor of gourmet dark chocolate is not enough, dark chocolate has been found to have numerous health benefits. Chocolate contains a number of nutrients and vitamins including potassium, magnesium and vitamins B1, B2, D and E. Preliminary research suggests chocolate may increase memory, attention span, reaction time and problem-solving skills. It is full of antioxidants that reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Finally, it chocolate releases endorphins in the brain that truly make you feel good!